An Idea Worth Spreading: Behind the Scenes of a Powerful Global Partnership

(Originally published in the February 2014 issue of The Meeting Professional magazine)

By Andrea Driessen, Chief Boredom Buster & TEDActive 2014 attendee


vancouver BC creative commons flickr(Dusk View of Downtown Vancouver,
Adam Jones, Flickr Archive)

(Background) The idea for this story was, serendipitously, born of a light-bulb moment I had during an MPI-PCMA Summit meeting in Seattle, WA last year. There I met Amy Koch, MPI member and sales manager at the Vancouver Convention Centre. As a rabid TED fan, TEDActive attendee and TEDx volunteer, I asked Amy how they ended up hosting TED (I mean, what a coup!). I soon sensed that this story is much like TED’s mission: an “idea worth spreading.” It’s a vibrant example of vision and teamwork, and an inspiring model for strategic supplier-planner partnerships.


British Columbia, Canada—home to the 2010 Winter Olympic Games—was looking to outdo itself. After all, once you’ve hosted one of the world’s largest events, what do you do for an encore?

Raising the bar on BC’s Olympian feat required the finesse and timing of Canadian hockey great Wayne Gretzky. Winning demanded that hospitality, tourism, convention, incentive and governmental teams across all of Canada join forces. That they collaborate to re-imagine their region, their brand and their ability to elevate how ideas are communicated at live events. Success, in short, required being the right place at the right time.

And win they did: from March 17-21, BC will host what could well be called the “Olympics of Thought:” The meeting game-changer that is TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) in Vancouver, and the related TEDActive event, in Whistler. TEDsters, hand-selected to join the community, are some of the most well-known thought leaders in the world. Previous attendees include Bill Gates, Al Gore, Jane Goodall and Hollywood illuminati.

Jill Bolte Taylor TED talk holding brain creative commons from flickr(TED speaker/Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor)

How TED2014 ended up in Vancouver is a compelling story of vision and partnership. Of aligning to a common cause. Of helping everyone win—cities and provinces. MPI-member planners and suppliers. Influential thought leaders—along with you and me. We are the billion+ who get our own front-row seats to free digitized talks on everything from how aging can be cured, to how apes can write.

What Comes After the Billionth View?

The TED mission is to explore “ideas worth spreading.” Over its 30-year history, they have literally been giving the spotlight to wildly divergent and viral content. Collectively, TED talks express what humanity can accomplish, while inspiring us to achieve even more. All rather Olympian in and of itself.

In recognition of its three-decade anniversary, TED was ready for a new adventure. They began considering how to celebrate their successes so far, including well over a billion video views, and over 8,000 TEDx (independently organized) events. TED talks are viewed globally more than 1.5 million times a day.

After three decades of events in California, the TED team began to covertly consider other locations for 2014 and beyond. They began to explore what the next generation of TED could look like, and started researching the right venue.

Great Minds Think Alike

Meanwhile—and almost concurrently—meeting professionals in Vancouver began to talk about bringing a TED event to their region. Initially, the vision in Vancouver was myopic: “We simply wanted to be on TED’s radar. Maybe we could host smaller TED ‘spin-off’ events,” remembers Claire Smith, CMP, MPI member, and vice president of sales and marketing for the Vancouver Convention Centre. Little did the Vancouver team know that as they considered inviting TED to their province, TED too was studying where and how to best usher in their 30th year.

“We kept conversations alive and continued to envision a TED-BC alignment,” explains Smith, who—before the new Convention Centre was built—was president of MPI’s British Columbia Chapter.

The Vancouver group met with the TED team for the first time in early December 2012, and what had been a somewhat remote possibility of hosting not just a TED offshoot but TED itself become a probability. An official announcement of the move to BC came in early February 2013. But at this point, they didn’t have a lot of planning time. Details came together on very short notice, says Smith.

They cleared dates. Chose hotels worthy of world leaders. Attended to significant security requirements. And all under the radar.  Because TED wanted everything on the Q.T., no one except the core team could even know the name of the prospect.

An Inspiration Centre on the Rim

Lucky for Canadians, Vancouver, Whistler and environs offer their own “ideas worth spreading:” the world’s most eco-friendly meeting venue; knee-buckling scenery; a vibrant citizenry and business climate; a commanding landscape. Geographical, intellectual, physical and multinational components intersect here.

Moreover, the Vancouver Convention Centre—also host to MPI’s 2010 World Education Congress—was built to be more of an “inspiration center” than a convention center. Floor-to-ceiling walls overlooking an inlet rimmed by snowcapped peaks, wide open spaces that naturally spur connections among people, a perch on the Pacific Rim. All these features conspire to inspire ideas and collaboration.

Chris Anderson, TED’s curator, calls Vancouver, “one of the world’s greatest cities, combining a thriving culture of innovation with glorious nature.” TED views Vancouver’s Convention Centre as a venue that can do even more to inspire creative thinking and dynamic ideas.

Canada’s Own Global Positioning System

Naturally, any effort of this magnitude requires a range of players. The Vancouver team realized that to form an even more powerful alliance and a more enticing location for TED, they needed to reach beyond the province to shine the light not just on Vancouver and Whistler, but all of Canada.

Enter Greg Klassen, senior vice president of marketing with Canadian Tourism Commission—and a TED attendee in 2013. Klassen’s verve and vision helped convert this BC-only team into a nationwide alliance of convention and tourism partners from the Canadian Tourism Commission, Tourism Vancouver, the Vancouver Convention Centre, the Vancouver Hotel Destination Association and top hoteliers.

Then Klassen and his team took their efforts a few notches further. Applying key principles from corporate branding, they collaborated, and expanded on what this TED event in Canada actually delivers. Rather than just sell BC as a regional tourist destination, they thought bigger by positioning themselves as a global commerce leader, with the phrase “Business Events Canada.” Together with TED, they see the big picture—viewing commerce, connections and innovation as global enterprises.

And it was in the midst of this broader brand repositioning that TED came knocking on Vancouver’s door. Challenge met opportunity.

Their now-nationwide effort not only gives Canada’s Meetings, Conventions and Incentive Travel (MCIT) division more lasting and powerful appeal. It also speaks directly to the interests of TED attendees, who are global business leaders, famed scientists, movie makers and parents whose children attend school abroad. Rather than compete, this consortium of tourism and business partners forms a commanding and innovative alliance—a rising tide that raises all boats, as Klassen sees it.

Again, hosting the 2010 Winter Olympics expanded the Canadians’ sense of possibility. The array of Olympic sponsorships brought some of the highest level corporate executives to Vancouver and Whistler four years ago, exposing this pocket of the world to many influential thought leaders.

Further, in the same way that Coca Cola was an official sponsor of the 2010 Winter Olympics, Canada gains more visibility and differentiation by securing important naming rights in their agreement with TED. So, Klassen explains, Canadian tourism and trade show collateral will feature the TED logo and the taglines “Canada/TED host country,” “Vancouver/TED host city” and “Vancouver Convention Centre/TED host convention centre.”

Staging Inspiration

If not for the entire Canadian team’s willingness to view challenges as opportunities, the inevitable hiccups may have led to a different outcome. For example: anyone who’s watched even one TED video knows the event revolves around the audience’s view of the stage and participants’ intimate connections to presenters. Klassen explains: “The TED experience is inclusive of the speaker and the audience, and yet also separates the speaker from the audience. Clearly, staging is the crucial core of a TED event.”

Staging in TED’s long-time Long Beach, CA venue meant a fixed theater. But the Vancouver Convention Centre has no stage whatsoever. So choosing to see this as an opportunity rather than a road block, TED producers and the Canadian team asked: how can we transform a 52,000-square-foot ballroom into a new vision of what an event space can be? How can this blank canvas inform a fresh approach?

That’s why the stage, along with many other aspects of TED, are being boldly re-imagined. While most stages, by design and necessity, are built to be multi-purpose, the new TED stage will be tailored for an event that focuses on the spoken word. It will maximize the audience’s experiences of presenters, and allow for a range of configurations for sitting, listening and connecting with speakers.

Spreading ideas and innovation

While the size of a TED audience is relatively small by convention standards (attendance is capped at 1200 for TED and 900 for TEDActive), the range of delegates, as during the Olympic Games, is complex. People are high profile. Many speakers are household names. Or will be when their TED talks go viral.

Like the forward motion of an Olympic downhill skier, the Vancouver “Inspiration Centre” influences its convention and tourism staffs just as it inspires future convention attendees. The momentum of visionary ideas fosters even more innovation.

So this spring, when countless ideas originate and spread from Vancouver and Whistler, we will all see what can happen when committed teams align to a common purpose, join forces and stage events worthy of gold medals.